Isabel Bayrakdarian opens the door to her dressing room at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. On the windowsill is the long, auburn wig she will wear as Mélisande, in the Canadian Opera Company's production of Pelléas et Mélisande opening tonight. Hanging on the closet door are her radiantly colourful costumes.
The conversation, however, soon turns to babies - a topic of much interest to Bayrakdarian these days. "It ends with us not knowing whose baby she has," she says of Debussy's only opera, "whether it's Pélleas's or Golaud's - or whether she had conceived before meeting Golaud. Mélisande is unlike any other role I've portrayed, because musically and dramatically it's so very ambiguous."
The 34-year-old Toronto-based soprano continues, explaining how the ending of the work has a personal significance for her, as a new mother herself. "The first time we rehearsed the final scene - when Mélisande is too weak to raise her arms to hold her newborn child - I found it very disturbing." For the performances, she has requested that the eyes on the theatrical doll be closed, so as not to look so lifelike.
The birth five months ago of Ari, to Bayrakdarian and her pianist husband, Serouj Kradjian, hasn't slowed her down. While she did have to withdraw from rehearsals for The Marriage of Figaro at New York's Metropolitan Opera in the fall as her due date approached, she has bounced right back into professional life. She has recently appeared in concerts and recitals in New York; San Francisco; St. Paul, Minn.; and Kansas City, Mo.; and in a production of Don Pasquale in Denver.
"My baby has been travelling with me ever since he was one month old," she says. "He's been very co-operative - it's almost as if he knew what he was getting into! When he's older, things will change, but that's a bridge we'll cross when we get to it."
It was 10 years ago Bayrakdarian sang her first role with the COC: the Sandman in Hansel and Gretel. She was just 24, fresh out of the COC's Ensemble Studio training program. If her degree in biomedical engineering didn't point to a singing career, her win at Placido Domingo's Operalia Competition in 2000 certainly did. Since then, her ascent to the heights of her profession has been swift and sure - guided by a careful selectivity and a wide-ranging eclecticism.
"Initially," she recalls, "I turned down a lot of engagements, when other singers were saying, 'Oh my God, I would love to have that opportunity.' When I was 21, I was asked to sing Liu in Turandot, but said no thank you."
Deciding that Puccini's big-voiced roles could wait, she turned to Mozart: to Zerlina in Don Giovanni, Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro and Pamina in The Magic Flute.
Critics have been impressed with her Mozart. The New York Times declared her Pamina "beautiful in every way you can be: in singing, in comportment, in looks." And the San Diego Union-Tribune recently credited her with bringing "alluring expertise" to the role of Susanna.
Yet she willfully resists being pigeonholed. "I've always been known as a Mozart interpreter. I've done a lot of Susannas - you could wake me up a 3 a.m. and I could sing it, and prompt the other performers at the same time. But sometimes you need the thrill of learning something new. I don't understand how some singers can bring freshness and novelty to a couple of roles that they do all the time. I'm not one of those singers - I need the stimulation of new excitement."
Even as she built a reputation for Mozart, Bayrakdarian cultivated other musical interests: 20th-century opera and Italian bel canto roles. "I'm very fortunate," she notes, "because people who do casting 'get' me. I have been offered interesting parts because the people who make the decisions know that if they ask me to do a role, I'm going to do it justice."
Also, her skills as a recitalist have won her much praise. "What impressed me most," reported a critic for Opera News magazine, after a 2005 Carnegie Hall performance, "was that she chose not to take the audience by storm; instead, she captured it by stealth."
And she has followed pathways that have led her away from the tried-and-true classical repertoire. She sang on the soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings movie The Two Towers, and also for Atom Egoyan's film Ararat. She has taken an interest in Latin-American music and has recorded a CD of tango songs for CBC Records.
It was Bayrakdarian's first journey to Armenia in 2004 that inspired her current fascination with the music of her ancestral homeland. "In Armenia," she says, "when you walk on the ground, you feel 1,700 years of Christianity right in the soil. ... it puts in perspective a huge history you can't really grasp if you're not there. I promised myself I would return, and I have."
In the capital city of Yerevan, she performed with the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra and with local folk musicians. The trip was documented in the film The Long Journey Home, aired on CBC. (She can also be heard singing in Armenia, accompanied by a group of musicians playing a flute-like instrument called the duduk, on YouTube.) In the fall, she will undertake a tour with some of the musicians she worked with in Armenia; there's a Toronto performance at Roy Thomson Hall on Oct. 17.
For the next few months, however, opera is dominating her schedule: Pelléas et Mélisande in Toronto, followed by The Marriage of Figaro in Munich (her last Susanna for a while) and the title role in The Cunning Little Vixen in Japan.
Beyond that, she is deliberately vague. "I don't believe in having a five-year or a 10-year plan. I already know my two-year plan - I have it in my calendar. But how I fill the voids in between my engagements is something that I like to leave to the unexpected. Who knows?"
Special to The Globe and Mail
Pelléas et Mélisande runs on various dates at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre until May 24 (416-363-8231).